Modernist Poetry

Just as Eliot, Hulme and Pound shaped their poetry through complex interactions with their literary predecessors, so the poets who came after them defined themselves in various ways against the modernist tradition. During the 1920s Eliot and Pound were the vanguard of poetic revolution: The Waste Land and The Cantos dramatically expanded the possibilities of what one could do in poetry. Their sophisticated metrical experiments established free verse as a flexible yet demanding medium and provided a form that could express the variety of rhythms of conversation. They returned the venerable form of the long poem to use in modern poetry by replacing continuous narrative with juxtaposed images, vignettes, and quotations. In terms of content, the city and modernity replaced nature and universal values. These writers also changed the very way the poet conceived of her or himself: they rejected the romantic conception of the poet as natural genius, in favour of the poet as a technically skilled professional.

Only a decade after the publication of The Waste Land, however, a new generation of poets was proclaiming a break with modernism. In 1932 Michael Roberts's anthology New Signatures appeared, grouping W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender, who, with Louis MacNeice, would become the main representatives of the Thirties Poets. In his introduction, Roberts sharply contrasted these poets with their modernist predecessors who had, he wrote, shown contempt for society and 'become aloof from ordinary affairs', producing 'esoteric work which was frivolously decorative or elaborately erudite'. He characterized the Thirties Poets as engaged with their political and social context (they were strongly drawn to Communism), appealing to a wider, less highbrow audience, and returning rhyme and regular metre to modern poetry (1932: 10-11, 16). The Thirties Poets had been far more influenced by modernist poetry, especially Eliot's, than this description allows, and Auden especially would later be associated with Eliot by the neo-romantic poets of the 1940s, such as Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham, who reacted against their intellectual, urban poetry. In fact, one can see the beginnings of the romantic revival that would be the key factor in the British turn against modernist poetry in the Thirties Poets' belief in the poet as a spokesperson, communicating in ordinary speech. The 'Movement' poets of the 1950s, including Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings, turned against both urban modernism and neo-romanticism, and instead traced their lineage back through an English literary history unbroken by the American interruption of Eliot and Pound. The early twentieth-century poetry they admired was the modest, keenly observed and less experimental verse of Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman and the Georgian poets. By the middle of the twentieth century British poets seemed to have moved away from modernism: Eliot, seen as by far the most significant modernist, was rejected by most poets (despite the fact that, as poetry editor at Faber, he was responsible for publishing many of them), Hulme was known more as a philosopher and critic than a poet, and Pound, who had left Britain in 1920, seemed irrelevant.

Poets in the United States have proved more consistently receptive to modernism, and many of the twentieth century's most important poets identified themselves with the tradition of Eliot or Pound, though rarely both. Eliot's influence was deeply felt in the 1920s and 1930s in, for example, the poems of Hart Crane, the early poetry of Robert Lowell and in the work of the Fugitives (later known as the Southern Agrarians), especially Allen Tate. As the century progressed, it was the Eliot of Four Quartets, the formally-controlled guardian of tradition, rather than the poet of The Waste Land, who was admired and imitated. In 1960, however, Donald Allen's New American Poetry anthology revealed a new generation of poets who had been working in a different direction. Allen's introduction explained that the new poets rejected 'all those qualities typical of academic verse', by which he meant the Eliot-influenced verse that predominated, and instead were following the example of Pound and Pound's college friend and former imagist, William Carlos Williams (1960: xi). Poets included in Allen's anthology included Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets (named after the experimental college in North Carolina with which many of them were associated), the poets of the San Francisco renaissance, such as Robert Duncan and Gary Snyder, and the Beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg. These diverse poets extended Pound's and Williams's formal experiments in a variety of ways, but if one were to look for a shared approach, it would be in interpreting modernist achievement as an energetic opening out of the poetic text. It is worth noting that much of this experimentation went against the grain of Pound's intention in The Cantos, specifically in rejecting coherence as a major poetic value. In fact, as a number of critics have commented, it was precisely the 'failure' of The Cantos, its lack of coherence, which proved most enabling for these poets.

The emergence of a new generation of modernist poets in the 1960s brought to light other, older, poets who had been working in the Pound—Williams tradition in Britain and the United States, the most important of whom were Basil Bunting and the Objectivist poets Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. It is these figures, along with other modernists such as H.D. and Gertrude Stein, more than the once-dominant Eliot, who stand behind the poets who today identify themselves closely with the modernist tradition. Though too numerous and various to describe here, some of the most important contemporary modernists include Roy Fisher, Christopher Middleton, J.H. Prynne and the Cambridge School, John Ashbery, and Language poets such as Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein. Despite Eliot's and Pound's shared history, their poetic legacies have become almost opposed traditions, Eliot standing for the meditative lyricism and metrical order of Four Quartets, Pound for the perceptual precision of imagism and the open form of The Cantos.

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